By Mac Deaver
All of my growing up and most of my preaching career found me lingering under the misconception that Christians today remain bound by the Great Commission. My generation was not the first to be taught this as truth, and that is why I had the wrong idea about it. I had been misguided by those who went before me as they had been wrongly taught by those who went before them on this matter of the relationship of the church today to that long ago given assignment. It was common in the brotherhood of my youth for brethren to think that all Christians are under obligation to the Great Commission. That is, the view was pervasive throughout the church that all of us are under obligation to go into all the world to preach the gospel to the lost. And that is the way that preachers told the story of the cross. We kept the obligation constantly before ourselves and the brethren with whom we worshipped.
I can remember, however, as a young preacher being very bothered by the concept of that commission obligation as it related to me as a 20th century preacher. I remember as a young preacher discussing my frustrations about it with my father. I was trying to come to a better grasp of the relationship that we brethren (including us preachers) have to that assignment. Regarding evangelism, regardless what the church did, nothing ever seemed to get finished. Ever. Each generation lived and died and without the modern day fulfillment of the commission. But somehow, we thought that if we kept stressing it to ourselves, we were upholding a part of the permanent pattern of Christianity. And even though we all knew that not one generation since the first had ever fulfilled the commission, that somehow the failure of all of us since then did not have essential eternal consequences. That is, on the one hand (1) we told ourselves constantly that we were under the commission, and (2) constantly failed to fulfill the commission as every generation before us had (except the first one), and yet (3) each generation of Christians passed away bound for heaven. This is what we believed and preached.
Even now I would venture to say that most preachers spend a tremendous amount of time and energy reinforcing the view that evangelism today rests on the Great Commission assignment and that all brethren are under that assignment. Most appeals of would-be missionaries are based in part with references to our alleged obligation to the commission. But, the view is fraught with difficulty, and I would like to discuss it just here.
In our book, Except One Be Born From Above, I deal with this misconception in Chapter 15 entitled, “Facts That Paint The Picture Of Acts.” I want to emphasize what I say there about the commission and even provide more information to help explain why it is that we simply cannot be under that commission. I also wish to provide three sound arguments that conclusively demonstrate why it is impossible for us to be under that awesome assignment given to the apostles. But before we get into the elaborate discussion of the particular point that I wish to make, I would like to ask a few questions. Why don’t members of the church feel obligated to build an ark such as that constructed by Noah? We might say in response that the assignment to build that ark was a one-time assignment that fit a particular historical moment. Well, why don’t we Christians feel compelled to go and preach exclusively to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”? We say, well, that assignment was given in an historical context where it was appropriate and it was given to the apostles only, and it was superseded later by a greater commission. All right then, why don’t members of the church feel compelled to produce more Scripture? We respond that such cannot be done because Scripture has been completed, and there is no miraculous capacity for the production of it. Okay. Why do members of the church today feel compelled to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature”? Unlike the responses thus far offered, we decide this time that we are under such obligation. And I ask, “WHY”?
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate truth regarding our non-amenability to the commission given by the Lord to the apostles before he left the earth. It is not the purpose to lessen our efforts among men in trying to reach the lost with the gospel, but I would have us all understand that any evangelistic effort that we put forth is based on something other than the commission. While it is true that all men are under obligation to become Christians (Acts 17:30-31), it is not true that all men are under obligation to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. There is a difference between “the great commandment” and “the great commission” (Matt. 22:37-40; Mark 16:15-16), just as there is a difference between one man’s obligation to preach (cf. 1 Cor. 9:16), and the world’s obligation to repent (Acts 17:30-31). While it is clear that the apostle Paul was in a category all his own, in one sense (Acts 9:16; 20:22-23), the whole world is in one category in need of salvation (John 3:16).
In the first place, please note that the view that Christians today are under the Great Commission fails to consider the unique position of the apostles. When we admit that no generation of Christians has carried the gospel into the whole world since those of the first century did, we likely are assuming that the first century church itself was under that assignment. But, dear reader, did you ever find a passage in the New Testament where that assignment was given by the apostles to the church? I have not found that passage. Let me ask it another way. Have you come across at least one passage in the New Testament where any apostle repeated the assignment (given to the apostles) to any other Christian as a stimulus to evangelistic activity? If you haven’t looked, let me go ahead and tell you: there is no such passage! It is certainly true (and who would want to deny it?) that we have many passages providing instructions on teaching and calling for teaching and examples of teaching. But we have absolutely no information to the effect that the first century church saw itself under the Great Commission assignment.
We preachers at times have not been very good interpreters of Scripture when it comes to this topic. For example, we have often quoted Acts 8:4 to undergird our current accepted notion that we are under the commission. The passage says, “They therefore that were scattered abroad went about preaching the word.” Where the American Standard Version (ASV) has “about,” the King James Version (KJV) has “everywhere.” We preachers have referred to this passage many times trying to shore up our responsibility to preach the gospel everywhere. And if that is all that we have in mind, there is no harm done. But the harm is in trying to attach the preaching everywhere that the scattered brethren did with an alleged obligation to the Great Commission.
To see the point I am trying to make, go to Mark 16. The commission is given to the apostles and to the apostles only (v. 14). They are told where to go and what to preach (v. 15). They are told what men must do to be saved (v. 16). Then Mark informs us of what will characterize the church. Certain named “signs” will accompany those who come into the kingdom (v. 17-18). Finally, the book closes with this summary remark: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken unto them, was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word by the signs that followed. Amen.”
Notice that the “they” who went forth and preached everywhere, according to Mark, are the apostles (v. 14, 19). In verses 17 and 18, we see that those who become believers will be characterized by miracles in their midst. In other words, the early church would have access to miraculous power. And Mark tells us that the apostles (over an unstated period of time) preached everywhere and that the Lord was working with them and confirming the preached word by signs (cf. Heb. 2:1-4). But most of the apostolic preaching “everywhere” took place later than this “scattering” in Acts 8 because Luke tells us that when the brethren scattered due to persecution, the apostles remained at this time in Jerusalem (v. 1).
Notice also that the brethren do not scatter to preach the gospel because they were given an assignment to do so, but because they were run out of town by persecution (v. 1). And those to whom the assignment was given to go into all the world and to preach everywhere remained in town! New converts, understanding the significance of the gospel, however, would gladly take the message with them regardless where they went, and this they did (v. 4). The first Christians, then, to preach outside of Jerusalem were non-apostles. They would gladly spread the truth as best they could while the apostles awaited further instructions in Jerusalem.
But how is it that those charged with the duty of going into all the world can remain in Jerusalem with divine sanction? We need to realize that even though the gospel was carried throughout the earth in about a thirty year period (Col. 1:23), there was no emergency! Why not? There was no emergency because all Jews and all Gentiles were still living under divinely provided religious systems that entailed salvation possibility, a salvation based on what God was going to do about their sins (Rom. 3:25-26; Heb. 9:15). Jews had heretofore been judged by the law of Moses and Gentiles had been judged by compliance with moral law (Rom. 2:12-15). All the Gentiles and most of the Jews remained amenable to their systems following Pentecost. So, Jews and Gentiles could live and die and be bound for glory before and even up to a point following Pentecost. There was no emergency because of the divine arrangement in place. Jews and Gentiles became answerable to the gospel as the gospel became accessible to them. The book of Acts relates to us this history. That means that all the preaching that was done by the apostles and the early church up to the time when Paul writes Colossians 1:23 was being done in an historical context where men could yet be saved in Judaism and Gentile-ism (because the gospel had not yet become accessible to them). The early church wasn’t making heaven a possible destiny for the first time (cf. Matt. 8:11; 22:32; Luke 16:19-31). Men became amenable to the gospel as the gospel reached them. Before it reached them, their obligation to God was for the Jew to obey Moses and for the Gentile to obey moral law. The good Jews and Gentiles went to Paradise when they died; the evil ones went to Tartarus. The book of Acts is capturing for us the historical and divinely guided change in amenability. God was taking the Jews and Gentiles, whom he himself had long ago separated (cf. Gen. 12:1-3), and placing them together by means of the third religious system which was based on the gospel (Eph. 2:11-22). We are watching (1) the going away of human amenability to the law of Moses (Judaism) and to moral law exclusively (Gentile-ism) and (2) the coming of universal amenability to the gospel of Christ.
No doubt, there was great harmony between the apostles and early saints in evangelism, but the church did not and could not sustain the relationship to the commission that the apostles did. How do we know? First of all, we know by (1) considering one of the qualifications for all apostles that remained in place, and by (2) considering clear statements declaring the responsibility that the apostles alone carried.
Remember that when Matthias was chosen to take the place of Judas just before Pentecost, there were two qualifications listed as essential for the replacement. First, the successor to Judas had to have been in the company of the other apostles when Christ was on earth beginning from the time when John began to administer his baptism and remaining in the company until the ascension of Christ (Acts 1:21-22). And, second, he had to be a witness of Christ following his resurrection. These were named as the two credentials for Judas’ successor. The first qualification, however, was not permanent to apostolic appointment, but the second one was. When Saul of Tarsus obeyed the gospel and became an apostle, he was appointed an apostle in spite of his not being in the company of the other apostles from the days of John, but he was required to see Jesus.
And that is why in Acts 9 we have the blinding appearance of Jesus in his glorified state to Saul (Acts 9:3-5). Barnabas explained to the twelve that Saul “had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him (Acts 9:27). Ananias later told Saul, “For thou shalt be a witness for him unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard” (Acts 22:15). Later Saul—or Paul—in a defense lesson declares that following the Lord’s identifying himself, he then said to Paul, “But arise, and stand upon thy feet: for to this end have I appeared unto thee, to appoint thee a minister and a witness both of the things wherein thou hast seen me, and of the things wherein I will appear unto thee” (Acts 26:16). He compared his late view of Jesus to an untimely birth of a child (1 Cor. 15:8). He was the last one appointed as an apostle to see Christ, and he saw him after he left the earth which, in a way, gave him a better view than all the others had ever been granted! Stephen, a non-apostle, just before his violent death had been granted such a view (Acts 7:55). This shows us that such a glorified view did not necessitate a blinding. In Paul’s case the glory was intensified so as to become blinding, and it was in addition to the view of Jesus. The lingering effects of the blinding may well have been the Lord’s way to humble Paul because of further visions and revelations to come (2 Cor. 12:1-10; Gal. 4:15; 6:11). So this leads us to a definite conclusion: those charged with taking the gospel into all the world were eyewitnesses of the Lord in his resurrected state! Of course, there were some others who were eyewitnesses as well (1 Cor. 15:1-8), but the Great Commission assignment wasn’t given to them. There is a definite distinction drawn between (1) all who saw the Lord following his resurrection and (2) those who had been “chosen before of God” and “who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:41; cf. Luke 24:33-43). It was to this second group that the commission was given “to preach unto the people, and to testify that this is he who is ordained of God to be the Judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Obviously, Paul was not in this group, but his assignment was given by Christ following the Lord’s resurrection, ascension, and coronation (Acts 9:15-16). Paul claimed that Jesus had appointed him to service (1 Tim. 1:12).
Second, the ones responsible for the Great Commission assignment were ambassadors of Christ, and the ambassadors are distinguished from the rest of the world and even from the rest of the church. Notice carefully that Paul identifies himself with others who were given “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Paul affirms that if a man had been reconciled to God, he had been thus reconciled through Christ. But not everyone who was reconciled was given a special ministry as such. It is certainly true that all Christians could and did have a certain kind of ministry in serving (cf. 1 Pet. 4:7-11), but Paul tells the Corinthians that “the ministry of reconciliation” was given to those he identifies as “us” and these men were those by whom God through Christ was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). And the “us” to whom the ministry of reconciliation had been given is the same “us” that were reconciling the “world” or the “them” to God (2 Cor. 5:18-19). And finally, notice that the “us” by whom God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ are said to be the “ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20).
The word for “ambassador” (presbuo) occurs only twice, here and in Ephesians 6:20. According to Harper’s Lexicon, this word means “to be elder; to be an ambassador, perform the duties of an ambassador.” There is another word (presbeio) which refers to “an eldership, seniority; an embassy, legation; a body of ambassadors, legates” (Luke 14:32; 19:14). In Luke 14:32 the word presbeo is translated “ambassage” and refers to those men sent by a king. In Luke 19:14 in the parable of the pounds, the Lord used the word to refer to a group of men who represented the citizenry that belonged to a certain nobleman. The representatives of that citizenry constituted the “ambassage.” The word that Paul uses in 2 Corinthians 5 is plural and translated “ambassadors” (representing Christ) and in Ephesians 6 this same word is in singular form and refers to Paul only as he calls himself “an ambassador in a chain.” Of course there is both an official meaning of representation and an unofficial sense of representation. The apostles were officials in that they were divinely selected and sent by God. The word “apostle” means “one sent as a messenger or agent, the bearer of a commission, messenger (Jno. 13:16); an apostle (Matt. 10:2).” Apostles in an unofficial sense (those not of the apostolic band, as such, but sent on a mission) would include Barnabas (Acts 14:14) and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25). Paul’s commission, like that of the other official apostles, entailed the direct involvement of Christ himself. And Christ himself, though not one of the apostolic band or company, was certainly above them, being divine. And Christ was an “apostle” sent on a mission from heaven (Heb. 3:1). There were none other than the official apostles who constituted the whole of the Lord’s “ambassadors” on earth.
Third, two of the official apostles and ambassadors of Christ were given special assignments that were to be carried out under the general assignment of the Great Commission. The Lord gave Peter the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19), which explains why it is that Peter is present on the landmark occasions when the Jews, the Samaritans, and the Gentiles enter the kingdom (Acts 1:8; 2:1-4; 8:14-24; 10:44-48). Not only that, but he was given prominence among the other apostles in that he had a commission to the Jews—or a responsibility to them—unequal to that shared by the others (Gal. 2:7). The Bible does not explain this difference, but it identifies it. And though Paul was given the responsibility of preaching both to Jews and Gentiles (Acts 9:15), he had a special obligation to Gentiles (Gal. 2:7). So, by this we know that even among the apostles, there was a certain inequality of responsibility to the Great Commission because of the specific commissions that were given to Peter and Paul.
Fourth, the apostles’ distinctive relationship to the Great Commission is seen in the fact that each apostle had witnessing power unavailable to anyone else in the church. While various members of the church had one or more of the nine miraculous gifts, no Christian had a gift that the Holy Spirit did not want him or her to have. Every gift was given to the man or woman who received it according to the will of the Holy Spirit himself (1 Cor. 12:11). The apostles did not hand out these gifts; they came to an individual—if they came at all—because of the person’s desire for a gift (1 Cor. 14:1), prayer (1 Cor. 14:13), and the desire or will of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:11). The gifts could be distributed by the Spirit in conjunction with or in association with the accompaniment of human hands (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6), but no human hands provided Spirit power. Spirit power came from the Spirit himself. And please note that in the two passages just noted, the hands of (1) an apostle and (2) some non-apostles were utilized. (This is all discussed in detail in our book, Except One Be Born From Above).
Now, the degree of power distributed by the Spirit was up to the Spirit. Some men and women received a degree of power which enabled them to perform miracles. But whether a man or woman was given that degree of power or not, he or she was always given Spirit power because each man and woman was given the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32). It was impossible to have the Holy Spirit within and not have access to enormous spiritual power (cf. Eph. 3:14-21). But many brethren were during the first century given miraculous capacities, not simply the supernatural non-miraculous ones that would perpetually continue in the kingdom following the close of the apostolic era. But the singular feature of the apostles was that each man was able to perform “the signs of an apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12). Evidently, the apostles could perform all nine of the miracles. The apostles stood out as obviously recognizably different (by miraculous power) from the rest of the brethren. No one could do what they alone could.
Fifth, if the brethren in the first century had borne equal obligation to the Great Commission characteristic of the apostles (that is, if all the brethren had been under assignment to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature), then they should have all been given the gift of tongues (as the apostles were) and they all should have been encouraged to desire that gift. Think about it for a moment. If one of our missionaries today desires to go to a country where a language other than English is spoken, he either works through translators (a person who knows both English and the native tongue) or he begins to learn the native tongue himself. Many of our missionaries have done this. And it takes ability, much effort, and much time before an American can speak in another language. As adults, surely we all realize that not every man is capable of much foreign language learning. We do not all have a knack for language study (not even for English)! If each Christian were under obligation to go into all the world with the gospel, he would have required the gift of tongues to be able to speak in native dialects as he came into new ethnic areas. Or even if he just had to go into one area where the native inhabitants spoke a language other than his own, he still would have required the gift. And yet, we learn from Paul that some brethren evidently developed the wrong attitude toward tongue speaking.
He corrected them and told them that they ought to desire the gift of prophecy rather than tongue speaking, and in the discussion we learn that their tongue speaking was being done in a setting where those present didn’t understand the foreign language being spoken. Hence their tongue speaking was being utilized in the presence of believers and not for evangelistic purposes (1 Cor. 14:1-6). Tongue speaking was designed to be used primarily for unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22). So, do we not see that if the gospel was to be preached to unbelievers throughout the world and if the world was characterized by various languages, and if tongues were to be used for unbelievers who did not speak the language of the apostles, then apostles were to speak in languages provided by the Holy Spirit? And while this ability (to speak in a language that one had not learned) was available to some non-apostles, it was never provided to them for the purpose of evangelizing the world.
Sixth, the next point I wish to make is that even if someone could prove that the early church sustained the very relationship to the commission that the apostles did, still it would be the case that the church today simply cannot sustain that relationship. Why would I say such? I would say it because the fulfillment of the Great Commission depended upon the capacity of the apostles to speak by inspiration and to confirm the preached word by miracles (Heb. 2:3-4). The apostles did not speak by inspiration when they went on the Limited Commission because they had not as yet received the Holy Spirit (Matt. 10:5-7; John 14:16-18). The inspired preaching capacity would come later in preparation for their taking the gospel to the world (Matt. 10:16-23; John 14:26; 16:13). And though some of the apostles never wrote Scripture, and some non-apostles did, the apostles were given the assignment to go into all the world. The apostles (Matthew, John, Peter, Paul) and the non-apostles (Mark, Luke, James, Jude) stood in equal relationship to the gift of prophecy whereby they wrote Scripture, but there was always a difference between apostles and non-apostles (Eph. 2:20; 4:11).
Other brethren, we know, helped the apostles in the work of spreading the gospel. Both Acts and the epistles prove this point. That the apostles bore a responsibility that other brethren did not is again, however, shown by Paul’s comparison of himself to the other apostles. Rather than merely comparing himself to the rank and file of the brethren, when it came to an appraisal of his work, he compared himself to the other apostles (whose labors would be more than the rest of the brethren) and declares, “I labored more abundantly than they all” (1 Cor. 15:10). Remember that Luke refers to the gospel during the days immediately following Pentecost of Acts 2 as “the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42). The following passages declare that the apostles were in a category of their own (1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 12:12; Matt. 18:18; 16:18-20; 19:27-28).
Seventh, this point involves the apostles and non-apostles in the first century church, but it certainly identifies a clear distinction that obtains between the assignment to go into all the world and the responsibility that the church has in evangelism today. The point is that during the thirty year period in which the gospel was taken to the whole world, God was miraculously managing the whole affair. Notice please Acts 13:1-4 and Acts 16:6-10. In these passages Luke informs us of the Holy Spirit’s involvement in first century evangelism. Notice two points. The first evangelistic tour of Paul began because the Holy Spirit himself gave a revelation that Paul and Barnabas were to do that work. The Holy Spirit himself sent Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary tour by declaring in a revelation that such was to be done. The Spirit “said” (v. 2), and the Spirit “sent” (v. 4). For comparison with what was to remain a permanent feature of Christianity, consider that the Holy Spirit still “appoints” elders but not by new revelation (Acts 20:28; Tit. 1:5). The second passage involving new revelation regarding evangelism is Acts 16:6-10. Here we learn that on Paul’s second tour (with Silas), the Holy Spirit for a time forbad Paul and his companions “to speak the word in Asia” (v. 6). And when Paul and company at first attempted to go into Bithynia, “the Spirit suffered them not” (v. 7). It was at Troas that Paul saw a “vision” that let him know that it was God’s will that he and his companions were to go into Macedonia. Luke tells us that “when he had seen the vision, straightway we sought to go forth into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel unto them” (v. 10). Later on the third tour, Paul’s two year work at Ephesus in the school of Tyrannus eventuates in the gospel going throughout all Asia (Acts 19:8-10). Other passages in Acts show us that God’s direct involvement in evangelism continued, but these two passages are enough to document the fact that the work went where God told it to go. Since we know now that this and all other kinds of revelations have ceased (1 Cor. 13:8-13), such specificity and clarity with regard to geographical assignment does not exist either. There has to be such difference between the work of the brethren under the influence of direct revelational evangelistic assignment and our situation today. Not long after the commission was fulfilled, the miraculous ceased from the earth. Isn’t it clear that if God had wanted the specific assignment to continue (that he gave to the apostles and which was successfully carried out with accompanying miraculous influence) that he would not have withdrawn the miraculous element from the church? But he did withdraw it, and while on the one hand we have rightly contended for years that miracles have ceased, we have wrongly contended that the assignment that was fulfilled by the necessary miraculous element in the early church has continued! This is one of our lingering mistakes.
God undoubtedly continues in his providence to open doors for evangelism according to his own will (and we continue to pray that his will be done on earth whether it entails evangelism, edification, benevolence or even the continuation of our very lives [Matt. 6:10; Gal. 6:10; Jas. 4:13-17]), but we do not and cannot learn of these open doors by new revelations that were made available to the early church (cf. Acts 14:27; 1 Cor. 16:8-9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Rev. 3:7). It is one thing to tell brethren that we all must love neighbor so that we desire to do what opportunity allows us to do for his good, but it is quite another thing to attempt to obligate each Christian to the Great Commission. The accuracy of the first point can be proven by Scripture just as by Scripture the inaccuracy of the second point can be established.
We do ourselves no favor in constantly misapplying passages (that give accounts of evangelism) to support a contention that is not true. And the mere citation of a passage to prove the contention is simply not good hermeneutics. The Lord once told Satan that one does not necessarily establish his point by the mere citation of Scripture. The Scripture must be not merely correctly quoted but correctly applied (Matt. 4:5-7)! Recently, I was looking at an article where a preacher was expressing his hope that the time would come when evangelism would be the priority of the church. After stating his sincere desire, he cited 1 Corinthians 9:16. He didn’t analyze the passage. He didn’t give the context of the passage. And he certainly did not give the correct meaning of the passage. He simply cited it as though it sufficiently established his desire that the church should see its priority mission as evangelism. I am not saying that there are no times when a Scripture citation cannot do the job intended by the one who cites it. I have, indeed, done that very thing in this article. But we must all be careful to make sure that the Scripture reference that we cite in fact does prove what we are citing it to prove.
In our latest book, Except One Be Born From Above, I show how it is that we can by Scripture prove that the view that evangelism is the number one priority of the church is absolutely false! But just here, let me simply point out that the passage that was cited in the article that I just mentioned (1 Cor. 9:16) does not and cannot establish evangelism as the priority or main work of the church. What the passage does show, considered in its context, is that since Paul did not choose to be a preacher on his own, he could not “glory” in preaching. However, he could “glory” in preaching without charging for his services, and that became his adopted policy. Read the text for yourself. I remember hearing a preacher years ago, using the same passage and applying it to himself. Well, if it has any correct application to himself, it is not and cannot have the same application to him that it had to Paul because Paul didn’t choose to be a preacher, and the modern day preacher that I heard did! And also, Paul preached without pay, and the modern day preacher preached with pay! We sometimes, though unintentionally, are very careless in our own use of Scripture.
Furthermore, please consider that all of the evangelism that we read about in the book of Acts transpires under the authority of the assignment given to the apostles. All of it! When the book closes, Paul is in Rome a prisoner of Caesar for the first time, and it is while he is there he writes the “prison epistles.” The year is about A.D. 62 or 63. And Colossians is one of those epistles that he writes. And it is in that epistle that he informs us of the fulfillment of the commission (Col. 1:6, 23). And in the books written following Colossians, there is no information to suggest that evangelism is of higher priority to the church than edification and benevolence. There is no passage in the New Testament that teaches that the main work of the church is evangelism. A Christian’s relationship to the church is comparable to any person’s relationship with his own family. Priority attention is to be given to his own (1 Tim. 5:8; Gal. 6:10). We have surely known this when it comes to benevolence, but the concept is of equal application to edification and evangelism as well. But just as some of us reached the incorrect conclusion that the church can help “saints only,” most of us were taught incorrectly that the church’s basic responsibility was to the sinner. How pitiful!
In the eighth place, note that texts that do mention an obligation to teach others cannot in and of themselves prove that the teaching that we are to do today entails Great Commission obligation. By inferring what the Bible implies, just as we conclude that all men today must repent, we can rightly conclude that the church today is to support the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). However, that does not mean that when the church today does teach the truth, that she is under obligation to the Great Commission nor is she under obligation to attempt to place new converts under such obligation. For example, in spite of the fact that (1) Paul did more in evangelism than any other apostle (1 Cor. 15:9-10), and (2) though each apostle was qualified to do more than any one non-apostle (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 2 Cor. 12:12), and (3) though members of the church in the first century were not all on equal ground with respect to work to be done (1 Cor. 16:15-16), and even though (4) we now rightly teach that Christians do not all have the same capacity to work equally at the same thing, and so do not share equally in all specific activity (1 Cor. 12:12-31), when gospel preachers get through preaching on evangelism, the definite impression is left with the audience in most cases that it should be, according to Scripture, the main focus of every member that the gospel be preached to the lost. And that is not what the New Testament teaches!
Note that 1 Timothy 3:2 tells us that an elder is to be “apt to teach.” Teach whom? The passage does not say, but the qualifications being listed are to equip elders to take care of the church (v. 5). Consider 2 Timothy 2:2. Paul obligates Timothy to teach what he has learned to “faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” However, the “others” are not identified. They could certainly include non-Christians, but just as certainly, they could entail Christians. No emphasis is placed in the context on one group over the another. But clearly, Paul does not say to Timothy to commit his learning to other faithful men so that they will feel under obligation to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature!
Timothy’s work clearly entailed helping the saved and attempting to help the lost (1 Tim. 4:6, 12, 16; 2 Tim. 2:23-26). But there was no priority given to reaching the lost. If someone counters with, “Well, that’s why Jesus came to the earth (Luke 19:10), so that’s what the church should be stressing,” we would respond by saying that the reference to Jesus entails the fact that all men without Jesus would be lost. Jesus came to save all men (including the righteous ones in Gentile-ism and Judaism which were then the faithful of God). All men were technically doomed until his blood covered their sins (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:15). Even though there were some few good people on the earth before Pentecost (Luke 1:5-6), and some following (Acts 10), no man—whether he was good or bad—could go to heaven without the cross (Heb. 2:9; John 3:16).
And remember, dear reader, that all of the New Testament books (excluding Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which were written to prove that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God) were sent out to either individual Christians, a local congregation, or to congregations of the churches of God. And even the first four were for the church to use in strengthening itself for the tasks she had. The Bible is to equip the “man of God” (a Christian per 1 Timothy 6:11) “unto every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Indeed, all who obey the gospel are God’s own creation who are created for “good works” (Eph. 2:10). And we are “to be ready unto every good work” (Tit. 3:1). But good work to be accomplished by brethren, in general, is not and never has been primarily—and certainly not exclusively—evangelism.
It is now God’s business to regulate or manage evangelism according to his providential will just as it was his business to manage evangelism according to his miraculous will in the first century. As already noted, it is God alone who can open and shut doors of opportunity (Rev. 3:7). It is God alone who decides the course of history (cf. Rom. 9:17). It is God alone who controls human conception to the effect that it serves his purposes (Jer. 1:5). But it has never been God’s will whether performed by miracle or performed without miracle that (1) evangelism be the priority work of the church and that (2) evangelism be accomplished by creating guilt among the saved that they were never doing enough and were thus blameworthy for the continuing lost condition of the damned! If God can raise up a Pharaoh and a counterbalancing Moses to serve his purpose, and if God can raise up men or women with language capacity to translate Scripture so that his revealed word remains accessible to the degree that he himself desires, he can certainly raise up men and women appropriate to the divinely managed moment to grasp the opportunity for reaching the lost when the lost finally decide that they desire to be reached.
Finally, in the ninth place, since God has withdrawn all miraculous assistance necessary to the carrying out of the Great Commission, the Bible tells us that salvation possibility for any man now rests on bases other than the carrying out of that commission. Dear reader, if you were to face an atheist in public debate who, in the course of his attacks on the existence of God, lambasted the very idea of God because, according to the atheist, if there were a God, the situation is now such on earth that no one could find him, what would you say to counter such an assertion? Is it true, that most men are or that any one man is in a situation such that he cannot be saved? Is it true that without miracles to help the delivery of the gospel, men are doomed to hell? Is it true that evidence for God’s existence is not plain? Is it correct that if there is an inspired book on earth somewhere, still most men can’t read it and so cannot find truth? Is it correct that since there are so few Christians on earth so that most men will never come in contact with one, that most men simply cannot be saved for lack of a Christian or for lack of a congregation? What do you say to all of this, dear reader?
I would tell the atheist, among other things, that he is simply wrong in his denial of God and in his contention that God, if he exists, does so without an existing apparatus sufficient to the salvation of men. Notice please—
- Man’s nature is designed by God so that he is, as long as he is true to his nature, seeking for God until his finds him (Acts 17:27);
- Man’s honesty about his own nature and his own guilt should drive him to seek until he finds him (Matt. 7:7-11; Luke 11:13);
- God wants all men to be saved (2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:4);
- God in his providence will see to it that all who sincerely want truth will find it (Luke 8:15; 11:13);
- No man’s failure and not even the church’s failure and certainly not an atheist’s failure can prevent the salvation of an honest God-seeker on his early search for God (Luke 11:13; Eccl. 12:1). Not even an apostate church can come between a God who desires to save and a man who desires the saving God. There is no weakness or insufficiency in the divine program and the control that the God of creation retains for himself.
Let me conclude this article by offering three arguments to prove that although faithful brethren today continue to uphold the truth in this world, we are not, have never been, and can never be, under obligation to the Great Commission. Please ponder the arguments carefully.
- All assignments that the apostles were given to do that required the capacity for inspired speaking and miracle working are assignments that Christians today cannot carry out.
- The assignment to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature was an assignment that the apostles were given to do that required the capacity for inspired speaking and miracle working (John 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:12-13; Heb. 2:3-4).
- Therefore, the assignment to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature was an assignment that Christians today cannot carry out.
- Any assignment that the apostles were given which changed human amenability on earth for all time is an assignment that cannot be carried out following its fulfillment.
- The assignment that the apostles were given to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature is an assignment which changed amenability on earth for all time (cf. Col. 1:23; Acts 10:36; 17:30-31).
- Therefore, the assignment that the apostles were given to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature is an assignment that cannot be carried out following its fulfillment.
- If (1) the fulfillment of the Great Commission today would require some brotherhood-wide authority in order to its fulfillment, and if (2) there is no brotherhood-wide authority to manage a fulfillment of the Great Commission, then there can be no Great Commission assignment currently operative.
- (1) The fulfillment of the Great Commission today would require some brotherhood-wide authority in order to its fulfillment, and (2) there is no brotherhood-wide authority to manage a fulfillment of the Great Commission.
- Then, there can be no Great Commission assignment currently operative.
The evangelism to be characteristic of God’s people today is that which is the normal, supernatural yet non-miraculous work of the Spirit within the heart of God’s people. It is not “guilt-driven” evangelism. It is not evangelism attempted because we have been intimidated or shamed into doing something constructive for the lost. It is not “cult” evangelism. It is the evangelism of light, leaven, and salt (Matt. 5:13-16; 13:33), and it will be the effect of the Spirit in a Christian’s heart (Rom. 5:5; 15:30; 2 Thess. 3:5) and which effect, among other things, is love for both saint and sinner (Rom. 13:8-10; Matt. 22:37-40).